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So who do I trust to bring me independent and objective views; where do I get information from about the products out there? I’ve been asked this question recently and there’s also been some mutterings on Twitter about the lack of transparency about some of the things out there.

I get my information from a variety of sources as I suspect we all do

Journalists: Now, I must lament some of the technology journalism; it’s sheer churnalism, the regurgitating and almost copy and pasting of press releases. I might as well go direct to the PR agency or the vendor. But we do have the odd good one who do try to hunt down a story, not take the vendor’s word on everything; yes, Mr Mellor, I’m thinking of you.

But even the churnalists, I generally trust that they are not being paid directly by the vendors with the exclusion of advertising revenue. I trust that you are not spinning a story to make the vendor look better. This may be naive but I hope this is true.

Bloggers: Well there are regrettably few independents left in the Storage World, it is nice to have a voice which is both speaking from experience but also from neutrality. Yes at times, I question whether anyone can be truly neutral and the FTC rules around disclosure are pretty good in allowing me to make a judgement. I think we have to be careful that we don’t become the ‘tech liggers’, turning up at every tech event on expenses paid for by a sponsoring vendor.

This does make life a bit hard, certainly for those of us who have corporate jobs but I think in general we do pretty well at managing this.

Peers: Probably the most useful of all my information sources, swapping experiences and opinions about technology. Sometimes having the conversation which the vendor really does not want you to have and puncturing the unreality bubble surrounding some technologies is incredibly useful. It would be great if we could have these conversations more publicly but we have families to feed. By the way, having worked the other side of the fence; I know the conversations about customers and shared experiences there could be equally career limiting if made public.

Analysts: Unfortunately I have to the stage where I believe almost nothing an analyst writes unless somewhere in the piece it discloses who paid for the piece. If there is no disclosure, I just don’t trust it; the analyst companies such as Gartner have been so opaque about their dealings with vendors that none of you are trusted.

And you really don’t help yourselves, lets take ‘The Cube’ for example; how many people who watch those videos realise that it’s a pay to play thing? They are generally flagged as interviews but you need to flag-up that these are paid for slots. So Wikibon who were supposed be a new form of analyst find themselves in that mire.

I hear conflicting stories about all analyst companies so it is probably unfair to pick on Wikibon and Gartner specifically but I think that all analyst companies should have a piece on their Business Model and how they make money. If you are taking money from both vendors and subscribers, I would like a disclosure of the proportion of your revenues are from each sector.

Squeaky clean is what you have to be.

Vendors: I trust all of the information I get from vendors….to show their product in the best possible light at the expense of the competition. I expect praise for competitors to be faint at the very best. But I do get good information from vendors and if you filter well you at times get the odd nugget about a competitor.

If a vendor tells me there’s an issue with another vendor’s technology; I generally will ask and often there is a grain of truth. Sometimes it’s an historical thing, sometimes not but it’s a whilst since I had a vendor tell me a blatant untruth. Of course I much prefer vendors to talk about their own stuff.

But when vendors get my goat is when they selectively quote from a piece which shows them in a good light and when you dig, you find it’s a piece that they paid for or with a company that they have a commercial relationship with.

And don’t be weasels and hide the relationship in small print; no-one reads small print.


A Year with Kindle

It’s just under a year since I got my Kindle and I still love it.

According to my Amazon account, I’ve got about 220 books in my Amazon library; there are a mix of free books and there’s also a lot of purchases in that. I subscribe to Asimov’s Science Fiction, Fantasy & Science Fiction and MIT Technology Review on it; I love the way that they just pop onto the Kindle on publication automagically.

Also on my Kindle, there’s probably another 60 books; a mix of O’Reilly books, technical PDFs and some odds and ends which I already had in one format or another.

And there’s still plenty of space left on it for a lot more and I’ve not had to delete any yet to make space.

I could take on holiday nearly 300 books just by slipping a single device into my pocket without worry about space or weight.

Since buying the Kindle, I find myself browsing the Amazon e-book bargains and have picked up lots of stuff for 99p; so cheap that I can take a risk but mostly I’ve found pretty good stuff. Often it’s the first book in the series and I go on to read the rest in the series.

There’s nothing intrinsically better about reading a book on a Kindle I find but also I don’t find myself missing the tactile quality of paper. I read fast and I haven’t found it slowing me down; it’s also a lot harder to cheat and skip to the end of a book just find out who dunnit.

The quality of the screen is amazing and I find the contrast just right for me. There is something about it which reminds me of the old excellent monochrome monitor which Atari made for the ST back in the day.

I’ve got the 3G/WiFi version and have on rare occasion used it to browse the web on; normally when the battery on my phone is on the way out and there is something I absolutely must find out. The browser is functional and kind of reminiscent of the early versions of Netscape in feel.

The keyboard is lousy however and you really do not want to type anything beyond a short URL or a short note. I once tried composing an email on it and nearly tossed the Kindle in the bin; it is horrible and worse than the ZX81 Keyboard from days of yore.

The screen as I say is excellent but actually I do have a complaint; it is too small and reading technical books with diagrams is painful on it. Amazon should ditch the physical keyboard and see if they can go soft keyboard and use the space regain to display more of a page.

I find the PDF rendering less than good and yet again diagrams are horrible in my experience. To be honest, if you are going to be reading technical books and viewing PDFs; I’d go with an iPad.

I thought I might find myself using it as an occasional MP3 player; I haven’t! I use my phone for that and simply haven’t got round to putting any MP3s on my Kindle at all. I’ve also not tried the text-speech, so I really can’t comment on the Kindle’s audio qualities at all; I’m sure they’ll be fine especially if piped through something like the Fiio E7 and a decent pair of headphones.

I would really like to see a colour Kindle but I suspect that might come at some sacrifice to the existing quality of the display; if it can be done with no quality compromise, I’d welcome it. I want to be able to read comics on the Kindle as well but yet again, that’d probably need an increase in screen size.

A touch screen and some way to scribble notes in the margins of books; that’d be great as well.

Do I want it to be a fully fledged tablet? Not if it compromises battery life; the battery life is so good and I don’t want another device which needs charging daily. But I would like it to be able be more user configurable; I would like to install my own screen-saver pictures without hacking it (yes, mine is hacked) and perhaps widget support on the lock screen would be great so that it pulled a news feed for example onto it.

All in all, I think that the Kindle is probably my favourite device of the past couple of years; it’s certainly the one I use the most and it’s also the one which strangers have asked to have a look at the most.

If you love reading, I think you owe it to yourself to give it a go. And even if you love books (and I still do love physical books), you still should give it a try. I’ve discovered so many different books since getting the Kindle, I can hardly remember a year when I’ve read so much.

And the best thing about the Kindle……no-one knows that you are reading the latest Dan Brown or whatever other guilty pleasure you have.


Just answer the question

Every now and then I dive into the forums on places on Linked In and come across discussions where people ask for advice about which piece of kit to buy;  they list some requirements and then various people dive in with answers and recommendations.

It never ceases to amaze me the way that people completely ignore the requirements and just pimp the piece of kit that they are selling.

But of course this is the way that the Internet and forums have always worked. No-one ever reads what the original question was; if they did, the forums would actually be pleasant and useful.

People talk about the the Wisdom of Crowds but that only works if the crowd can read.

So next time you are on a forum, trying to pimp your kit; try reading the question and if you can’t answer the question with your kit…..

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt

attr: various

VMware gets a Rocket

So VMware carry along on the acquisition trail, now picking up SlideRocket. SlideRocket, a SaaS provider specialising in enabling the creation and sharing of presentations; think Cloud Powerpoint appears to be another brick in the strategy to enable VMware to cover all bases when it comes to all things Cloud.

I guess we have got to expect this to be integrated somehow into the Zimbra Collaboration Appliance and I guess the next thing on the shopping list is going to be a full Cloud-based Office Suite as well. It seems that VMware have an aggressive expansion into as many parts of the enterprise stack as possible in plan.

Or is it that VMware have a lot of vapourware presentations that they want to get out there and share? Perhaps they are fed-up with paying Microsoft for the licensing fees of Powerpoint?

Who knows? But let’s keep that bubble expanding….the vBubble!

Cloud Storage without Cloud….

Another day, another new Cloud Storage Service; today I got an invite for AeroFS which is a Cloud Storage Service with a difference, it doesn’t necessarily store your data in the Cloud unless you ask it to, what it does do is manage a number of folders (AeroFS calls them libraries) and allow you to sync them between your various machines using a peer-to-peer protocol.

You can share the folders with other people on the service  and you can also decide which of the folders get synced to each of your machines which gives you a fairly coarse-grained sync. You also decide which of the folders get backed-up to the Cloud, so it is possible just back-up those folders that are important.

There is client support for Windows, Mac and Linux at present.

Currently the service is an invite-only alpha and I’ve not had a huge amount of time to play with it but it looks like a potentially interesting alternative to Dropbox but it will need mobile clients for it to truly compete. I do like the P2P aspects of the service and I do like that I can sync pretty much unlimited data between the clients. It is certainly one to watch.

AeroFS is here.

Email BackUp

Okay, so you’ve read the Gmail horror story and now feel a little bit vulnerable; well this product referenced by Lifehacker looks quite sweet. Yes, it is Windows only unfortunately but you might want to give it a spin and then back-up the files to your favourite other Cloud-provider.

Bod’s Annoyances: Server Virtualisation

Server Virtualisation? Is 'Bod simply being obtuse; yes it is entirely possible but before you write this off as lunacy, I do have my reasons. 

Firstly, server virtualisation is not actually a bad thing; it's been around for many years but the landscape today is actually more than a little concerning and I wonder if it will come to bite us really rather nastily over the next decade. The sheer number of virtual servers being built leads me to wonder about the long term sustainability of the current infrastructures and with the current virtualistion==cloud lazy thinking; I am really rather worried.

So how did we come to such a position? The seeds for this were sown in the early eighties when IBM launched the personal computer; prior to this (and yes I am ignoring the early adventures in personal computing by Apple, Commodore, Radio-shack and the likes), computers were large, complex and extremely expensive beasts managed by the computing department; access was very restricted and not many people had access. But with the personal computing revolution; our relationship with computers changed, indeed we actually started to develop a relationship with computers. 

One person mapped to one PC; that's the very definition of personal computing but as these devices became more powerful, it became pretty obvious that they were capable of so much more but the big, multi-user, multi-tasking operating systems which ran on the large corporate mainframes were not available for these personal computers. So we ended up running larger and more complex applications on these devices but using the operating systems available on the desktop; these were single-user operating systems with limited multi-tasking capabilities. So an application per device paradigm became the norm and even when multi-tasking became available and more common; the paradigm had become firmly embedded. 

And the lack of multi-user capablities really hampered the development of a centralised management and secure environment; so it became even more embedded. Add into that, a growth in CPU power far outstripping our ability to use it for a single application; we ended up in the position that we had rampant physical growth but with ridiculously low utilisation figures.

So in order to use this power and to manage it effectively; we have looked to server virtualisation to fix this problem allowing us to build virtual servers which more effectively use the available CPU or more to the point allow us to run multiple single application servers on a single physical server. It also allows concurrent management of these applications to be more easily achieved. Even the rise of the Intel-based Unix systems has not done little to break the paradigm of one application per server but instead of a physical server, we now talk about virtual servers.

It doesn't have to be this way and we only have to look at the way that virtualisation is used in the mainframe environment; you don't talk about running 1000s of server instances, you are more clever about how you virtualise. You may virtualise an environment but it will still only run a few actual virtual machine instances.You may group related applications into a single machine instance but not have those applications running as separate server-instances.

We could do this in the Intel-space; we should move away from the default position of one application per server instance, we should move to the position where we understand why we do so. There are applications which certainly work better when run in massively distributed and parallel environments but this is not every application. A database server can run more than a single database instance; a web-server can run more than a single web-server.

Okay, it's not server virtualisation itself which annoys me but the unthinking use of it and the traps that we are busy building for ourselves.

Turning desktop operating systems into powerful server systems probably was not the wisest move that the IT industry made but the short-term gains were probably too attractive, can we hope that we don't do the same thing with mobile device operating system? Actually, I am not that hopeful really; history does unfortunately have a habit of repeating itself.

Supporting Role?

If you work for a vendor and after reading this you feel that this entry is about your company, then you are right! And if you work for a vendor and after reading this you feel that this entry has nothing to with your company, then you are totally wrong!

I've been working in IT now for more than twenty years; I've done a variety of roles but a big chunk of my career has been running support teams and I've done this both sides of the fence i.e both at an end-user but also at a reseller. I know a lot of people who have worked in support on both sides of the fence and pretty much all of us have coming to the same conclusion; over the past ten years or so, vendor support has got markedly worse! Of course, it may be that we are looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses but I do not believe so. I would also say that this is pretty much across the board; this is not a storage problem but it impacts hardware and software support across the board.

There are a variety of reasons for this decline in quality and ironically, it is some of the services that we as end-users have demanded that may have driven the decline in service. 

The Internet is a big driver in the decline of quality; there are huge amounts of support information and detail on line and we as end-users have demanded that the vendor support databases are put on line; unfortunately, this information is often presented in a manner which it is pretty much impossible to effectively search and you find yourself trawling through screens of unrelated sludge before you find the answer you are looking for. But because all of this information has been provided in a 'self-service' portal, this appears to have been used as an excuse to reduce the number of qualified people that you have in a support centre. 

The Internet has also further enabled the stock holding questions from the support centre and having worked both sides, I know that these are holding questions in general.

1) Are you at the latest level? 

2) Can you send me the logs?

3) Can you send me the configuration files?

Now all of these are valid questions in many circumstances but too often it feels that you are dealing with a robot who is working off a script! This is a Support Centre not a Call Centre; there is a difference! And my (and many other's) responses to the questions are

1) Why? Will it fix my problem? Where in the release notes does it talk about something even vaguely related to my problem? And if I'm in a really sceptical mood, can you send me the piece of the code which fixes the problem. And you realise that this is a live production system and just applying fixes is unacceptable, I will get asked all the questions I've just asked you by the change board. And if it makes it worse, it's my job on the line.

2) Why? Will that log help you diagnose the problem because I've already looked at the log and I can't see anything. Do you have any idea how frustrating it is when you have got a disk off-line and marked failed to be asked for logs from the array?

3) Which files do you want to see and why? 

And often, I've already attached the information to the ticket already; so you asking for them again shows that you have not read the ticket or are just working off the script.

Constantly in conversations with our various hardware engineers from all vendors, we discover reductions in headcount, experience engineers being retired early etc and territory coverage per engineer being increased. We are not buying less hardware, we are buying more and there are more systems out there to go wrong. Now arguably, systems are becoming more reliable but there are more of them. And in the world of storage, we have lots of moving parts; disks spin, tapes spool, robots move and these are all things which wear out and break. Disks get bigger and the potential impact of a disk failure and the resultant rebuild times gets ever larger. 

Talking to people who work in the support centres; it appears to be more important to keep the queue within the targets than solving the customer's problem at point of first contact. There is no longer time to do follow-up calls; for example, calling the customer who had the severity 1 call to ensure that they are happy with the fix. 

This is just the tip of the ice-berg and I could rant on and on about this subject; I was ranting about the decline in service years ago and yet it really is not getting better. For example, I am personally aware of four companies this year who have experience major outages due to problems caused by vendor support; it may be that now I have a fairly high profile in the industry that people tell me their war stories but it seems we are on an upward trend. 

I think it's about time that the vendors started to review what and how they are providing support (fix your websites or at least put a decent search capability on it, it is pretty awful that generally I find myself using generic search engines and the site: directive to search your site); it is also about time that they started treating support centre staff with respect and giving them time to do a great job. 

Apple Abandons Enterprise?

So with the announcement of the withdrawal from sale of the 'Xserve'; have Apple finally abandoned the Enterprise? Actually to abandon something, you would have had to have been serious about it in the first place and Apple have never really been serious about the Enterprise and certainly the Data Centre. Pointing people at the Mac Pro or the Mac Mini is not really a serious suggestion is it? 

Apple have never had and I suspect are never likely to have a serious Data Centre presence in the world of Corporate IT but are we going to see Apple attack this from a different angle. We all know that Steve Jobs loves the ability to control the whole stack from top to bottom and I don't think he is yet ready to completely abandon any ambition that Apple have in the Corporate IT space; indeed, I think that he has been heartened by the user-driven success of the iPad and iPhone in the Corporate space and there is a realisation that he cannot compete with the traditional corporate suppliers on their own ground. So, he's going to try to move it to his ground.

The creation of the OSX app-store is simply the first shot across the bows; the ability to manage the applications on your Mac device in the same way as managing them on your iPad, iPhone (or indeed your Android device) will put a huge amount of pressure in Corporate IT suppliers to provide the same desktop experience to their users. I suspect Microsoft are going to come under an increasing amount of pressure from their corporate customers to provide similar functionality to allow application management by end-users. 

But the current Apple app-store does not really provide corporate customers with the level of control that they require and also, it will be completely unmanageable at scale; for this to be a true corporate play, we are going to need corporate app-stores where a corporate end-user can log into and download/install the apps which their employer have licenses for. However, once you get used to consuming applications in such a model; it is simply a better way of managing things. 

And I wonder if this will be Steve's next play for the Enterprise? Or perhaps Apple are truly about to dump the Enterprise and become a consumer-only company. If he doesn't do it; Google will do it as part of Chrome OS, if that ever sees the light of day as a non-beta product.

I suspect even the faithful of the media-world are getting a little nervous with the current behaviours of Apple; for example no FCP refresh until 2012 in a technology area which is changing incredibly quickly with new demands being made all the time is a little worrying for many of them.

2011 is going to be an interesting year for Apple watchers.

Apple’s Debt

Apple owes a huge debt to Windows and the PC industry; in fact, without the PC enthusiasts, Apple would have some really interesting problems. People like to point out that Apple has moved over to commodity hardware; which it has mostly but why has that hardware become commodity? It’s because of the PC. 

Steve Jobs makes a big thing about controlling the whole stack, both hardware and the operating system come from Apple; in this way, Apple get to build devices that simply work.  But the world of the PC massively subsidises his hardware development costs; for example, without the PC and especially the PC games players; where would Apple’s graphics cards come from? And there are many more examples in all of Apple’s hardware. 

It would be nice for the fan-bois to acknowledge this debt; there is no doubt that Apple put together some really nice machines, this entry is being typed on a new MacBook Air which is simply the most gorgeous laptop that I’ve ever owned. Is it revolutionary though? Not really, it’s just a really great instantiation of the laptop. And yes, it’s probably overpriced for what it is but then again, you can say that for many things. 

Perhaps including the integrated stacks some of the vendors are pushing…they need to stick Apple logos on them I guess!!